Gorgeously photographed, thematically complex and nothing if not ambitious, but strangely lacking in emotional punch, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Abouna merits an A for effort, even if it finally qualifies as a worthy set of ideas and symbols that doesn’t quite come off as drama. The central problem is that Haroun seems to have tried to do and say everything possible in a leisurely paced 84 minutes and the contents are too great for the package.
As a story, there’s not much to the film. Tahir (Ahidjo Mahamat Moussa) and Amine (Hamza Moctar Aguid) are two Chadian youths, aged 15 and 8 respectively, whose father has abandoned them. Told by their mother that their father is “irresponsible,” they confuse the meaning of the word to mean that he is not responsible for his actions and set out to find him, which leads them only to a dead end and a trip to a local movie house where they appear to see him in a film on the screen there. The next day they steal the film itself, which ultimately leads their mother to put them in a strict Islamic school. The rest of the film details their tribulations there and their dreams of and attempts to escape.
That much is story, but the film is less about that than it is about the power of film and its ability to make the viewer believe (even briefly) that the person looking down from the screen is actually connecting with him — actually seeing and interacting with the viewer. It’s also about the search for freedom, the inadequacy of words, and the need for something outside ourselves. There’s actually more than that, but that conveys something of the scope of the effort. That it works better as an intellectual exercise than as effective narrative filmmaking is unfortunate. That anyone should attempt such a thing in the first place is really rather magnificent in itself.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke